Europe’s heatwaves and the search for effective adaptation

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Global temperatures are soaring, and Europe is no exception. Every passing year breaks new records and sets historic milestones. The warm January experienced throughout Europe in 2023, and above-average temperatures in the spring, are just a glimpse of what lies ahead, as forecasts predict a recurring pattern of scorching temperatures.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the devastating 2003 European heatwave, which claimed over 70,000 lives across 12 countries, it is essential to examine how cities have responded to the rising urban heat. Acknowledging that heat imposes functional, economic and public health burdens on cities, some local governments have taken commendable steps to tackle this pressing issue. Others have fallen short, the ultimate consequence being preventable deaths.

This blog post explores both the successes and shortcomings in heat adaptation strategies, highlighting examples from Paris and Seville, and noting cities that have lagged behind. Additionally, it delves into two transnational efforts to address the global challenge of rising temperatures: the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Cool Coalition and the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, backed by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.

Best of show

Paris takes a leading role in the defence against rising temperatures, since the deadly heatwave of 2003. The city’s Heatwave Plan activates specific measures when temperatures cross a certain threshold. But the action also takes place all year round, not only during heatwaves. With an ambitious urban greening project, Paris aims to transform 100 hectares of paved areas into green spaces by 2024. This initiative improves air quality, reduces the urban heat island effect, and creates comfortable living environments. Evidence shows that lives are saved as a result.

The Cool Roofs program installs reflective coatings on rooftops to lower building temperatures and energy consumption. Paris also adopts an unconventional approach by regularly watering streets and public spaces, recognising the importance of evaporative cooling. Incorporating water features such as fountains and misters into urban design strategically creates refreshing microclimates, offering relief from scorching temperatures. In 2020, the city government demonstrated its commitment to creating a more healthy and resilient urban environment with the launch of a revised Local Urban Plan. The Plan takes a bold bioclimatic approach, pursuing a major ecological transition over the next 40 years to continue improving heat adaptation in the long run.

Seville, Spain has embraced a heat wave naming and categorisation system known as proMeteo Sevilla. In a ground-breaking move, the city officially christened Heat Wave Zoe as the world’s first heat event to be named like hurricanes. With temperatures soaring above 42°C/109°F and posing significant health risks, Seville has heightened its alert systems and issued comprehensive guidance to protect its residents, especially the most vulnerable. Athens, Greece will soon have an AI health-based categorising system that works in a similar way.

Room for improvement

While some cities have made remarkable strides in heat adaptation, others have struggled to keep pace with the changing climate.

Spain’s capital Madrid has been slow to respond to rising temperatures, leading to suboptimal outcomes. The recently re-elected President of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, claims that the ongoing climate crisis “is a scam that favours communism”. Despite her intent to erase the term ‘climate emergency’ from school curricula as ‘pure ideology’, the emergency remains real, and exacts a high cost. Madrid has experienced severe heatwaves that have increased the number of heat-related hospitalisations and even fatalities. From May through October 2022, over 1,300 people died due to excess heat.

The absence of an extensive urban greening program or adequate heat emergency plans has left Madrid vulnerable to the detrimental impacts of extreme heat. The economic costs associated with heat-related health issues and decreased productivity underscore the urgent need for immediate action and robust heat adaptation strategies.

London is similarly lagging. In recent years, England’s capital has experienced a significant rise in heat-related hospital admissions and heat-related deaths. The lack of investment in cooling infrastructure, and an absence of heat-focused urban planning exacerbate the vulnerability of Londoners to the intensifying heatwaves. The city has yet to prioritise heat resilience as a policy objective, despite scientific warnings and escalating temperatures. Aside from the high cost of retrofitting buildings to prevent overheating, multi-level and inter-sectoral cooperation and cultural change represent major challenges. A simple start would be to provide more useful content on the city’s dedicated heat website.

Transnational collaboration? Yes please!

In response to the heat crisis, transnational efforts have emerged to improve heat adaptation. Organisations such as the Cool Coalition and the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance are leading the way in fostering collaboration and finding innovative solutions. The Cool Coalition, spearheaded by UNEP, unites governments, businesses, and civil society to promote sustainable cooling worldwide. Besides publishing a state-of-the-art guidebook for cities, UNEP is piloting innovative cooling projects. With India’s National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), it is working to integrate solutions across various levels, from city to neighbourhood, building, and household, by offering technical assistance both on-site and through NIUA. They have similar initiatives in Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Coalition has also launched a global challenge aimed at cities from low-and mid-income countries, to leverage Nature-Based Solutions by providing funding and technical assistance. Through partnering with other transnational organisations to harness diverse expertise and resources, and focusing on greener cooling technologies, building design, and urban planning, the coalition aims to mitigate the urban heat island effect and reduce energy consumption.

The Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, funded and managed by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (‘Arsht-Rock’), is a multi-sectoral effort that brings together public health agencies, resilience specialists, urban planners, and community-based organisations with the aim to protect vulnerable populations from extreme heat impacts. By sharing best practices, developing heat action plans and other policy tools through its Heat Action Platform, the Alliance enhances resilience in at-risk communities globally. The Resilience Center also supports on-the-ground implementation and advocates for policy changes in city government such as appointing a Chief Heat Officer. As many cities clearly need help to fund such efforts, Arscht-Rock additionally runs a Cool Capital Stack initiative, mobilising investment in projects and technologies designed for extreme heat resilience ($750 million is the initial challenge goal).

While transnational collaboration, knowledge sharing, and innovation can provide hope and point the way to a sustainable heat resilience, this is not enough. Governments, businesses, and individuals need to engage actively to ensure that urban initiatives succeed and have a global impact. They need to move from endorsement to real action. In the realm of policy implementation, local governments can and must develop warning systems and early action protocols, as well as adopt heat action plans that incorporate specific measures to protect vulnerable populations. Another policy action is to update urban plans, promoting green infrastructure as Paris has done. Setting the appropriate incentives for external action also helps, so that climate-sensitive efforts can be decentralised, leveraging cool-roofing and energy efficiency through businesses and organisations.

Thanks to Europe’s wealth and robust supra-national policy machinery, the region has substantial potential to take a leading role in advancing heat adaptation efforts, setting a positive example for the rest of the world. By leveraging its resources and implementing forward-thinking policies, Europe can actively contribute to building a more resilient and heat-adaptive future for all.


Alejandro Sáez Reale is a 2022-2023 Policy Leader Fellow at the School of Transnational Governance, where he has been analysing climate change adaptation and climate governance at the urban scale.